While the season may be ripe for sunbathing on the beach or going to wild parties, a few among us have decided to spend their breaks volunteering in places like Alabama, New York, and New Orleans. There will be five service trips taking place this month, with about 65 Harvard students participating.
These service trips offer Harvard students a unique opportunity to assist and explore communities that are not full of the many advantages that we often take for granted in Cambridge. Though we, as college students, have our own struggles to deal with as we strive to understand ourselves and our growing responsibilities as young adults, we are still in a very privileged environment. The trips that these students will be taking offer a valuable service to the target communities and will also provide an enriching addition to the students’ educational experience if they approach the trips with the right mindset.
As a participant in one of the service trips to the Gulf Coast last year, I can testify to the reality of the experience that one has on these trips. Leaving the Harvard bubble and going to the other side of America can be challenging.
What worries me?
As Harvard students, it often seems that we are expected to know all the answers. This is the worst type of attitude to take to other communities in which we may be volunteering. It is not only damaging to the community, but also limits the effect that a person can have as well as their ability to learn. After all, it is not our community—it belongs to the people who live there. It is their history, their culture, their pride that they are showing us. They are opening up their homes to us.
Though many of these communities may not have the same resources that we possess at Harvard, they still have something valuable to share with us. Reflecting on her experience last year in New Orleans, Ffyona V. Patel ’07 remarked, “It wasn’t us teaching them—it was them showing us what their community was like, what it used to be, and what they are striving for it to be in the future.”
When a person goes to one of these communities, class distinctions can be apparent immediately, and people in the communities can tell whether or not we are being condescending. None of us likes to be looked down upon, and it would be foolish for us to believe that members of communities with fewer advantages than our own would appreciate condescending treatment or attitudes either. It is important that anyone participating in a service trip remains as humble as possible.
That is not to say that it is not okay to feel good about oneself. Instead, it is meant to suggest that a person should not become self-righteous and feel that he is better than others because he has chosen to spend time serving those in need. The attitude that a self-righteous feeling can be detrimental to the relationship between the visitors and actual residents of the community.
I am also not trying to imply that these communities are ungrateful for our help. Service trips have undoubtedly had an extensive impact on the development of regions—especially regions struck by serious disasters, such as the Gulf Coast. Gayatri S. Datar ’07, a leader of multiple trips to the gulf coast, observed that “volunteer efforts are really what’s pushing things through” in the Gulf Coast region.
My experience in New Orleans helped me to realize that these trips are about more than people simply needing our help. As I talked to residents of the area, I began to learn more about the struggles and hopes of other people whose lives had been drastically changed. As I worked side by side with people from the area and talked with them, I gave them a piece of myself and they gave me pieces of themselves. It was an exchange in our humanity, and I grew as a result.
Sure, it wasn’t the easiest week of my life. Everything did not fall directly into place, and I was not always in my comfort zone. On trips such as these, being comfortable is not the most important thing. By remembering that the trip is really about serving the community, a person can do more than have a positive effect on the lives of the residents of the community—he can also have an experience that changes his own life.
Lumumba Seegars ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.